Stay Cool, Dutch

by TNR Staff, TNR Staff | October 11, 2007

A very happy birthday to Elmore Leonard, who turns 82 today. In addition to reigning as the dean of American crime fiction for a few decades now, Leonard has had his books and stories converted into nearly three dozen films and TV movies. He's also, to a significant degree, the artistic forefather of Quentin Tarantino. As I noted in a review three years ago:
[Leonard's] fiction is delicately poised midway between the savage noir of James Ellroy or Dennis Lehane and the goofy capers of Carl Hiassen: The possibility of violence always lurks, but his protagonists don't spend a lot of time worrying about it, and neither does he. It's the hit without the grit. Most of the early film adaptations--Mr. Majestyk, 52 Pick-Up, Stick--captured the violence (it's hard not to, given the characters' tendency to shoot one another), but missed Leonard's light, semi-comic touch. Then came Quentin Tarantino and Get Shorty. Tarantino's literal contribution to the film--directed by Barry Sonnenfeld from a screenplay by Scott Frank--was merely to help persuade John Travolta to take the lead role. ("This is the one you say 'yes' to," he reportedly advised.) But stylistically, Get Shorty is very much in debt to Tarantino, who in Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and (especially) True Romance had finally offered a filmic vocabulary suited to Leonard: tough but jaunty, neither overly serious nor broadly comic, and above all, cool. (In 1995, Leonard told the Palm Beach Post that when he saw True Romance he thought, "This is what one of my books should be.") Tarantino's taste for both violence and humor may have far outstripped the more humane, understated Leonard, but the young director--who was arrested as a teenager for shoplifting one of Leonard's books--intuitively understood the balance between the two. It didn't hurt that both men's work abounds with sharp, pop-referential dialogue, intermingles black and white characters with casual confidence, and has a funky, retro 70s feel to it. In any case, Hollywood seemed finally to have found the formula for translating Leonard to the big screen: Following on the success of Get Shorty came Tarantino's solid but underwhelming Jackie Brown (1997) and the brilliant Out of Sight (1998), again written by Frank.
For those looking to kill a little time, the full review (of the lousy, second cinematic stab at Leonard's novel The Big Bounce) is here. My take on the (also awful) Be Cool is here, and one on the (far better) 3:10 to Yuma, from Leonard's early, Western phase, is here. You can also find my thoughts on where Tarantino's ouevre got badly off track here and here. --Christopher Orr

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